Welcome to my adventures and experiments in creativity. Where writing is like running: sometimes I know where I'm going, and sometimes I see where the mood takes me.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Thriller Seeking

Killing Floor / Die Trying - Lee Child

As a book-devouring teenager, when the world created by authors seemed far more interesting than the real one, the novels of Michael Crichton were a real highlight. Jurassic Park and The Lost World (a much better sequel than the film equivalent) held obvious appeal, but my two absolute favourites were Timeline and Disclosure. Thinking of how one of the big twists in Timeline made me feel, even on the second or third time of reading, still sends a shiver of excitement down my spine now.

Having not read any of these books for years, my recollection of Disclosure is a little hazy. Perhaps surprisingly given my naïve, impressionable mind at the time – as well as the poster for the film making great play of it, though I haven’t seen the movie – the abiding memory of the story is not the physical relations between the characters (consensual or otherwise) but the unusual sequence toward the end where the protagonist finds secret files by entering some sort of virtual reality operating system.

Typing those words now makes me feel, more than ever, the need to read the book again!

Thanks to the accumulated wisdom (<cough>) of the last ten or twelve years, part of me fears revisiting these works. What if they’re nothing like as good as my thirteen-year old self thought? Crichton was my first exposure to the fiction that I now recognise as ‘thrillers’; armed with today’s knowledge that the quality of writing across the genre can vary markedly, the foundation of my long-term memory risks being irreversibly damaged if it turns out the same novels are no longer enjoyable.

John Grisham’s The Firm, for example, was not so much a book to be read as endured. Persevering with his output, The Pelican Brief was started but went unfinished. Was this because they weren’t as good as something by Crichton, or because my tastes had started to become a little more discerning (however pompous that might sound)? A few years after that, Dean Koontz’s Forever Odd left me similarly underwhelmed – an efficient-enough story, but lacking soul.

And then there was Dan Brown.

Like most of the English speaking world, his name was a mystery to me until The Da Vinci Code was published. By somehow missing most of the attendant hype, my mistaken idea of the book being non-fiction was maintained right up until opening the first page. Even if the claims of it being based in fact were believable, there was no possibility of it being non-fiction – characters that one-dimensional don’t exist in real life.

Despite such a lukewarm reaction, something possessed me to pick up Brown’s Digital Fortress, an action (and a few irretrievable days of life) that has ensured his other works, and any subsequent ones, will go determinedly unread. It’s almost tempting to recommend Digital Fortress, just so you can experience the laughably drawn-out conclusion.

This declining curve of a relationship with the thriller finally received a boost upon being introduced to Stephen King. Here was a man, every bit as prolific as the likes of Koontz, but with a vein of charm and a unique voice in his writing. King’s works – still largely untapped by this reader – would merit a blog post of their own. Hell, The Dark Tower series alone merits one, and probably several, of its own (you’ll know for definite when I get round to revisiting Mid-World). Such a prolific nature ensures imperfections exist in the King back catalogue, but no other author has appeared so willing to be open with his readers, and for that he gets nothing but respect here.

All of which sees us to now – Lee Child, and his Jack Reacher novels. Long recommended by a friend, my first experience of Reacher was the abridged One Shot audio book, the impact of which was diluted by the editing and the succession of over-the-top accents employed by the narrator (note: having a gruff-voiced actor put on a soft feminine tone does not really work, especially when the listener wishes to be absorbed in the tale).

Opening up Killing Floor, the first in the series, therefore yielded a pleasant surprise – it was written in the first person! Already my faith was being won; reading some of the authors mentioned above, you could wonder whether they know of the concept of first person narrative. Tie that perspective to a character as compelling as Reacher and you start to produce a winning formula – if clichés of the thriller genre are unavoidable then Child deserves more kudos integrating them while exploring his protagonist to the extent he does (and making him (relatively) believable as a result).

Killing Floor was genuinely gripping and extremely well-paced, meaning Die Trying had an awful lot to live up to. Certainly on the copy in my possession, the inside front cover includes a brief biography of Reacher, meaning he might be the only fictional character to possess a recorded inside leg measurement! (Six inches longer than mine, as it happens). Rather than detracting from the experience, such a surfeit of information adds depth and realism to a guy you might otherwise imagine as a rather freakish giant.

Die Trying could never work in the first person, but the groundwork of the first book ensures the more conventional third person viewpoint doesn’t grate. Ultimately, it is simply very well written. The characterisation of Reacher in Killing Floor – the clipped sentences, the trains of thought – all carry over to the altered style of the second book, making it far easier to forgive the few moments that resemble less skilful examples of the genre.

So Tripwire is the next Reacher novel, but not before a couple of King books that have been on the shelf for a while. Already though, 2011’s reading list is looking like it’s going to be dominated by Lee Child, and it’s interesting to wonder whether the rest of the series will help answer a question that’s started brewing in my mind.

Who would win in a fight – Jack Bauer or Jack Reacher?


  1. From page 16 of "Echo Burning", Reacher novel number 5, and with particularly good timing:

    "Reacher turned his head and looked at him. Not really to antagonize the guy. Just to size him up. Life is endlessly capable of surprises, so he knew one day he would come face to face with his physical equal. With somebody who might worry him."

    [Insert "24" opening credits here]


  2. Damn you, MB! I'm just far enough into King's Bag of Bones to make it worth me finishing all 660 pages, but after that I might be abandoning the original plan to alternate Child books with other authors. Get that 5th Reacher book finished!